Filipino Musicians Drive Hong Kong’s Music Scene, but Gigs Have Dried Up

HONG KONG — The lively melodies were resounding off wood, glass and marble as the pianist performed jazz standards at a swanky hotel lobby.

But there was no audience to hear Jezrael Lucero play. Even the drummer and bass player in his trio had been forced to take the night off as a cost-cutting measure.

“I’m lucky to still have this gig,” said Mr. Lucero, 35, a keyboardist from the Philippines who plays six nights a week at the Grand Hyatt Hong Kong, a hotel usually popular with international business travelers but now struggling to fill rooms in the face of a global pandemic. “But I’m also aware of the fact that this thing might go down, too.”

Hong Kong’s live music scene, already muffled by months of antigovernment protests last year, was all but silenced this winter by the coronavirus outbreak. Some infections here were linked to what the government called a “bar and band” cluster in nightclubs.

Local transmissions of the virus in Hong Kong have since tapered off significantly, but the widespread closures of music venues — particularly bars — were in place through Thursday. Bars will be allowed to reopen Friday but cannot host live music.

And many of the Filipinos who power the financial hub’s live music scene — singers, guitarists, pianists, drummers and bassists — have been unemployed for months.

“It all started with the protests, and then we got the virus and the pandemic, so we’re talking about nearly a year of disaster,” said Manuela D. Lo, the chairwoman of the Hong Kong Musicians Union, a 70-year-old trade association whose members are primarily from the Philippines.

The crisis has exposed how the music scene here, which caters in large part to expatriates on corporate salaries, was built on the labor of economic migrants.

“It’s rendering their livelihoods almost impossible now,” said Anjeline de Dios, a professor of cultural studies at Lingnan University in Hong Kong who studies overseas Filipino musicians. “And it’s only at this moment that we’re realizing how much we need them.”

Entertainers from the Philippines have been performing across Asia for decades, and are known for playing Western pop music, a legacy of both the American occupation of the archipelago from 1898 to 1946 and the global reach of record players.

Before World War II, Filipino musicians entertained in Shanghai nightclubs, said Lee Watkins, an ethnomusicologist at Rhodes University in South Africa who has studied the intersection of music and labor migration.

After the war, some of those musicians went to Hong Kong, where they would play in big bands and on scores for Cantonese-language films.

Raly Tejada, the Philippine consul general in Hong Kong, said that Filipino musicians had been an integral part of the city’s “cultural fabric” since the 1940s.

A hallmark of the Filipino cover bands playing today at bars and clubs throughout Hong Kong is their astonishingly wide repertoires, spanning rock, reggae, R&B and much else.

A case in point is Icebox, the main house band at Amazonia, one of the neon-lit bars in Hong Kong’s Wan Chai district. When the band plays, it might cover everything from Frank Sinatra to Iron Maiden.

“Everything’s there, and it’s cool,” said its frontman, Spike Cazcarro, 52, explaining how the band got its name when it formed in 1999. He said he had grown up in the Philippines listening to the Beatles, the Bee Gees, AC/DC, Bruce Springsteen and other Western artists on his record players.

Filipino bands, which hone their technical skills by performing night after night, have been helping Hong Kong’s homegrown musicians “raise their game” for decades, said John Prymmer, the managing director of the Wanch, a Wan Chai music bar.

For all their talents, however, Filipino musicians often market themselves as cheaper alternatives to Western counterparts.

A good drummer, for example, can typically earn $650 for a wedding or corporate function. But Paul Sapiera, a veteran multi-instrumentalist in Hong Kong, said that many Filipino drummers would accept the job for half as much.

“Sad to say, but that’s true,” said Mr. Sapiera, 49, a Filipino who has lived in the city for 16 years.

Now, as the pandemic pinches musicians everywhere, migrant Filipinos are bearing a hefty share of the economic pain.

One of Mr. Sapiera’s Filipino bandmates, Charles Tidal, said that he typically sends about $1,300, or between 30 and 40 percent of his earnings, back to the Philippines each month to support his five children.

But those payments stopped when his gigs dried up in February, said Mr. Tidal, 39. He is now months behind on his bills, and a new part-time job as a clerk isn’t making up the difference.

“It’s hard,” Mr. Tidal said. “I owe money to lots of people right now to survive and feed my kids.”

Even Mr. Lucero, one of Hong Kong’s best-known session musicians, said the crisis had forced him to consider returning to the Philippines once flights resume.

The pianist, born blind in the central Philippine city of Cebu, is no stranger to hardship. He turned professional as a child, often playing seven sets a day for as little as $3 each, and was the sole breadwinner for his family even then.

“There was a point where we were barely surviving,” he said, as lamp light in the Grand Hyatt’s lobby reflected off his aviator sunglasses.

Mr. Lucero moved to Hong Kong in 2006, after being recruited to play a New Year’s Eve show. He eventually began playing on albums by local pop stars, among other collaborations, and is now writing a score for a theatrical production.

His six-night-a-week gig at the Grand Hyatt helps stabilize his income, and it’s fortunate, he said, that he plays the piano, which tends to be the last instrument standing when trios are downsized in a recession.

“I’m just thankful that I’m still here,” he said after tapping out a delicate version of “The Days of Wine and Roses,” a 1962 song by Henry Mancini.

“Hong Kong is a very dangerous place,” he added, “if you don’t have money to pay rent.”